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The Great Comet of 1882

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Had it not been for careful observation by Iowans, the world may never have discovered the heavenly message of the Great September Comet of 1882.

The comet was first visible to the naked eye in New Zealand on September 3rd of that year. By the end of September, it could be seen in broad daylight across the United States. It was moving 2 million miles a day, its tail stretching out double the distance from Earth to the Sun. "The brightest and most extraordinary comet in 1000 years," astronomers said.

Iowans were particularly taken by the comet. They had witnessed the Marion Meteorite Fall of 1847 the Leonid Shower of 1858, the eclipse of the sun in 1869, the brilliant Amana Meteorite Shower of 1875, and the Estherville Meteorites of 1879. But the 1882 comet was more spectacular than all of them. What did it mean? Was there a religious portent? There were predictions that the comet would fall into the sun and end all life on Earth.

The comet grew ever more mysterious. As it passed between the Sun and Earth, it became invisible. When it reappeared. It had split into six separate comets. "A string of pearls," one Iowan said. "A fan," said an Iowa woman. "A broom handle with a grid iron on the end of it," replied an obviously henpecked husband.

What did it all mean? The Iowa State Register printed a lavish poem by a former Davenporter. "In thy celestial journey," he wrote, "why seekest thou the abode of man? From what far realm does thou hail, with thy mission here to men?"

Astronomers at the University of Iowa observatory regretted that they could not answer they reported that their telescope was too small for purposes of discovery. Fortunately for the world, October 9th was a slow news day in Oskaloosa, Iowa. The editor of the Oskaloosa Herald announced that he had gotten up early for a good viewing of the comet, and by using a high-resolution telescope could read the foot-high letters in burnished gold strung out along the tail. Letters that said, "vote Republican on the straight ticket." It was too little and too late. In November of 1882, the Democrats gained an additional 50 seats in the congressional elections.

Rock Island Lines is underwritten by the Illinois Humanities Council and Illinois Arts Council, a state agency, with additional funding from Humanities Iowa, the Iowa Arts Council, and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.